Listening to the “experts,” the Florida Gators sounded like underdogs to East Tennessee State heading into Thursday’s NCAA Tournament first round game at the Amway Center in Orlando. Despite being a 10-point favorite with odds makers, several pundits had the fourth-seeded Gators on “upset alert” against the 13th seed Buccaneers.
To be sure, the pressure is on the higher seed in games like these. Double-digit seeds have low expectations.
Since 1985, 13th seeds have beaten fourth seeds 26 times. With that in mind, plus the fact the Gators were on a three-game losing streak and were missing center John Egbunu, perhaps there was reason for Florida to among those considered vulnerable.
Sometimes this Gator team has a great deal of difficulty shooting the ball, or will turn it over too often. What they have shown is a respectable degree of mental toughness to be called upon when things are not going their way.
Along with missing the injured Egbunu, sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen struggled mightily, making only one of 11 shots from the floor and scoring just seven points.
Canyon Barry, the SEC’s 6th Man of the Year, made only one of four shots and also scored only seven points. The Gators also turned the ball over 15 times.
Yet, they found a way to win.
Junior forward Devin Robinson filled in the gaps by tying his career high with 24 points. Kasey Hill, not known as a strong outside shooter, scored 14 points on five of eight shooting. Kevarrius Hayes, filling in for Egbunu, scored seven points, but had a game-high six steals.
“That’s kind of who we are,” said Gators Coach Mike White. “KeVaughn’s not hanging his head right now. KeVaughn is happy we won. Devin would be the same way if KeVaughn were sitting here (in the interview room) right now.”
Robinson helped lead the offensively struggling Gators from a five-point lead midway through the second half into a double digit lead they would not relinquish. The defense played a huge role in building that lead by creating turnovers and holding the Buccaneers to 40 percent shooting.
Next up is the fifth-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, who rallied from a 15-point deficit to down North Carolina Wilmington in Thursday’s first game at the Amway Center. Perhaps the Vaughn that Florida is used to seeing will emerge.
If not, someone else will probably step up. With a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, White and the Gator faithful certainly hope so.